Realists Versus Russianists on Ukraine

In my neck of the intellectual woods, views on the causes of Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine split into two camps, which I’ll call the Realists and the Russianists. Some people straddle the two groups, and there are other streams of thought on this issue, but mostly the conversation seems to break into competing claims along the following lines.

For their part, the Realists explain Russia’s behavior as a product of the insecurity endemic to the international system. Realism sees world politics as fundamentally anarchic, and the absence of a trusted protector encourages states to husband and grow their power as the only reliable means of protecting their survival and autonomy. This insecurity is so compelling that it even tempts states into expansionist actions aimed at preempting future threats, either directly by winning control over the menacing rival or indirectly by increasing their own power. As Arthur Eckstein (2006, p. 21) describes,

In an anarchic state-system where relations are strongly competitive and conflictual, where unresolved disputes, tensions, and frictions accumulate, and where every state must look primarily to its own resources in order to defend itself, it makes sense for every state to take the strongest possible measures to increase its own security. But measures successfully taken to increase one state’s security act simultaneously to undermine the security of every other state. The result is that the level of tension and distrust intensifies all around. Moreover, making a competitor (i.e., a potential adversary) more insecure not only tends to increase the other state’s interest in militarization but also—as Realists judge from conditions in the modern world—the other state’s own interest in territorial expansion.

Seen through this lens, the revolution in Ukraine in February created both a threat and an opportunity for Moscow. After Yanukovich fled his post, Russia was especially eager to secure control over Crimea because it is home to the Black Sea Fleet, but Putin’s government was also motivated to grab at parts of Ukraine by the continuing expansion of a rival power that already abuts its borders. For Realists, it is not coincidental that Russia’s most aggressive gambits in the past decade have come in Georgia and Ukraine, two countries that border Russia and to which NATO and the E.U. have continued to dangle the promise of eventual membership. Nor is it surprising that Russia seized a chunk of Ukraine and continues to destabilize the rest of it when it looked like Kiev was finally poised to take a clear step toward “the West” by signing an E.U. association agreement and rejecting membership in Moscow’s rival project, the Eurasian Customs Union.

So that’s where the Realists seem to be coming from. The Russianists, meanwhile, see Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine almost entirely as the product of a domestic turn toward chauvinism—or, for the more fatalistic, the resurgence of a chauvinism that never really goes away. Some Russianists see the Putin administration’s waxing nationalism as an earnest manifestation of its core values, while others view it more cynically as a ploy to rally domestic support for the government in the face of a sputtering economy and frustration with authoritarian rule. In either case, though, the root cause of Russian aggression is said to lie within its own borders, and NATO and the E.U. are potential partners whom Russia is rebuffing because its own pathologies blind it to the mutual gains that more cooperative relations would produce.

As is often the case, these competing explanations also imply different expectations about the future. Many of the Russianists I follow have reacted to the annexation of Crimea with predictions that a Kremlin crazy (like a fox?) with nationalism will not stop until it is compelled to stop. They now expect the eventual annexation of eastern and possibly southern Ukraine and see Moldova’s Transdniestr region as a probable next target. Some even warn that the presence of large numbers of co-ethnics in Estonia and Latvia will compel Russia to venture there, and they fear that those countries’ NATO membership, and the untested promise of collective defense it represents, will not suffice to deter this ambition. In their view, the logic of Russian domestic politics now dictates an expansionist line that can only be broken by crippling punishment and loud threats of harsh retaliation.

By contrast, many of the Realists seem less alarmed about where this crisis goes from here. They believe that the same insecurity which motivated Moscow’s recent aggression will also discourage Putin & co. from pushing much farther against the interests of a powerful rival, especially when Russia’s own hard-power resources are already stretched thin and maybe even shrinking. Instead, they expect Moscow to focus on consolidating its recent gains and to avoid provoking an even costlier response by probing the boundaries of NATO’s resolve.

Whether Moscow holds the current line or moves to annex more territory won’t prove one camp right and the other wrong. A single episode will rarely suffice for that, and either course is at least possible under either framework. What it will do, however, is provide new information on which we can and should update our thinking about which view is more right. If Russia stops at Crimea, it would undercut many Russianists’ claims that Putin & co. are compelled by their chauvinist project to “protect” ethnic kin and to continue regrowing the empire. If Moscow does pushes much further, however—and, especially, if it ventures into the Baltic states—it would be hard to sustain the Realist line that domestic nationalism is largely ephemeral to this process.

Importantly, there’s also a prescriptive side to this debate. If the Russianists are (more) right, then now is the Munich moment, and the only way to halt Moscow’s expansionist drive is to make clear to the Putin government that it will suffer badly for its transgressions. If the Realists are (more) right, however, then the bellicose response some Russianists seek could exacerbate the situation by amplifying the security dilemma that underlies the current crisis.

For what it’s worth, my views on this particular case hew closer to the Realists. Russian domestic politics is surely influencing Moscow’s behavior—how could it not?—but if I had to pick a single class of events to which this episode belongs, I would put it in the bin with the many, many other instances of aggressive self-help in response to the insecurity endemic to an anarchic international system. Observers of world politics have noted this pattern for literally thousands of years. Meanwhile, the nationalist turn we’re seeing in Russian domestic politics could be as much consequence as cause of these international tensions, and the idea of Russia as pathologically expansionist is hard to square with the limited scope of Russian irridentism we’ve actually seen over the past 20 years. Europe and the United States may insist and genuinely believe that they mean Russia no harm, but their active and vocal pursuit of democratic change in Moscow undercuts this claim, at least in the eyes of the people who staff the apparatus that actually makes Russian foreign policy. That pattern doesn’t justify Russian aggression, but I do think it goes a longer way toward explaining it.

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  1. What has struck me about the intervention of academics is that they feel confident abut providing explanations in the absence of sufficient evidence to test hypotheses, therefore what we hear is merely a restatement of prior theoretical commitments. Explanations are hard otherwise people wouldn’t be revisiting debates about the origins of WWI. I just wish there would be more caution expressed. My own way of organizing the explanations given is to use Alison’s three models from his study of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rational actor model is popular among those of use who don’t know anything about Russia, because of its general application; the governmental politics model is favoured by those who know something about Russian politics; and the experts on Russian security forces will talk about how existing policies and procedures are shaping Russia’s actions. Of course, the point is to emphasize one model, not necessarily to exclude the others.

  2. Grant

     /  May 8, 2014

    “…the idea of Russia as pathologically expansionist is hard to square with the limited scope of Russian irridentism we’ve actually seen over the past 20 years”

    There is a stumbling point there, Russia was economically, politically and militarily too weak to do much invading and changing borders until relatively recently. I personally do not view this as quite a Munich moment, but I would remind others that Germany had gone through a similar extended period of weakness before beginning its own expansionist goals.

    • I think you’re right to think about how Russian power has varied since 1991, but I don’t agree that it has waxed significantly in the past few years. Power is notoriously hard to measure, of course, so we could go in circles all day on this question. Still, I’m having a hard time seeing how 2014 is much different from 2004 or even 2000, other than the surprising turn of events in Ukraine.

      • Grant

         /  May 8, 2014

        I’m not so sure of how definite the increases in Russian military power are, so I won’t focus on that, but in terms of political and economic power Russia is in a much better position to seize parts of other nations than it was during the 1990s through perhaps the early 2000s. It’s true that Russia’s economy was beginning to be in trouble before this and Putin’s popularity was decreasing, but I don’t think they were coming down from their highs swiftly enough to preclude invasion. In another few years, who knows? Perhaps Putin simply would have been forced to relinquish his gains geographic gains.

        And given the sheer weakness of the nations Russia has attacked, Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian military doesn’t need to be as strong as it used to be prior to the 1990s. It simply needs to be better than the general worst of Europe. This time at least it’s avoided embarrassing ambushes.

        But if a crisis develops including a NATO nation I think we’ll get a much better picture of Russian motivations. If Russian leaders are motivated more by nationalism then it is possible Russia will choose military action regardless. If they are motivated more by realist thought then perhaps they will choose to avoid possible conflict with NATO.

    • PS. This article, from The National Interest last year, lends some credence to your claim that Russian hard power is waxing, although most of what it describes involves plans and spending that have not yet been executed. So I would say these plans are more a symptom of the same insecurity I discussed than an explanation for the current crisis.

  3. For a great example of the Russianist view I described, see this March post by Masha Lipman for the New Yorker’s News Desk:

  4. And here’s Paul Goble with an argument that blends elements of the two views while leaning in the Russianist direction:

  5. Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War in 2008, offers another Russianist take, describing the Putin regime as “bent on repression at home and aggression abroad, and fuelled by greed, paranoia and deep resentment of the West”:

  6. Sverrir

     /  May 17, 2014

    This is a great read and clarifies the debate that I’ve been witnessing… but I don’t really get why realists wouldn’t be concerned about further expansion and aggression. Why wouldn’t a Realist, just like a Russianist, expect Putin to eventually annex “eastern and possibly southern Ukraine and see Moldova’s Transdniestr region as a probable next target”? If the annexation of Crimea is seen as a way for Russia to enhance its security through expansion (the realist argument), wouldn’t this also be the perfect opportunity to seize more territory? Realists have witnessed the first annexation of a European country’s territory since WWII and suddenly they’re the peace optimists?

    • Grant

       /  May 17, 2014

      Well it’s in part, as I understand it, more a difference in how you view what caused it, but also it could be argued that a Russianist Russia would be more likely to enter an unnecessary and self destructive conflict than a Realist Russia.

    • No, you’re right that there’s nothing in Realist theory itself that should make any Realists sanguine about what comes next. If anything, the opposite is true. It’s just that, in this instance, all the folks I know who skew Realist also believe that Russia has already fallen from the ranks of great powers, that its relative power is still on the decline, and that Russia’s foreign-policymakers are not bonkers, so those policymakers are unlikely to risk a wider and costly war that further saps that power. The latter is where they tend to slide from structural theory into policy theory, but that’s the basic line of thinking as I understand it.

  7. Another data point of interest to the Realists: “When Russia seized Crimea in March, it acquired not just the Crimean landmass but also a maritime zone more than three times its size with the rights to underwater resources potentially worth trillions of dollars. Russia portrayed the takeover as reclamation of its rightful territory, drawing no attention to the oil and gas rush that had recently been heating up in the Black Sea. But the move also extended Russia’s maritime boundaries, quietly giving Russia dominion over vast oil and gas reserves while dealing a crippling blow to Ukraine’s hopes for energy independence.” See:

  8. Instead of a general, abstract argument that this is the way in which countries deal with anarchy, I think it makes more sense to take realist insights and tie them to the specifics of the issues and leaders’ perspectives in play. Something more like this:

  9. Here’s a terrific essay on the Ukraine crisis from Lawrence Freedman that integrates elements of system-level and state-level thinking:–global-politics-and-strategy-june-july-2014-3d8b/56-3-02-freedman-6162.

  10. The Eckstein quote, which basically re-hashes the ‘security dilemma’ that goes back at least to J. Herz (1951), says at the end that when a state is made to feel more insecure, its interest in territorial expansion increases. Not necessarily. There are a bunch of ways that a state can respond to an increase in felt or perceived insecurity, and an increased interest in territorial expansion is only one of those ways (and not one that has been all that common in recent decades).

  11. correction:
    “a bunch of ways in which…”

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